Throwing like a girl(‘s brain)

We’ve all read some of the discussions about differences in men’s and women’s brains, but the case of throwing overhand offers a cautionary tale about thinking we’ve found something inherent in being male or female. The danger is that we accept too quickly observed differences without digging a bit deeper into their variation and potential causes. In the United States, most of our readers will have run across the idea that women throw like, well, … girls.

Jennie Finch can strike you out.
Jennie Finch can strike you out.
In fact, the empirical gulf between average throwing ability in men and women is huge (just as it is symbolically important), dwarfing virtually any other measurable difference between the sexes, even things like aggression, frequency of masturbation, attitudes towards casual sex, and spatial abilities on paper-and-pencil tests.

Janet Shibley Hyde, one of the leading proponents of the ‘gender similarity hypothesis,’ concedes that there are some marked differences between men and women, singling out throwing ability as the most pronounced among them (2007: 260; see also 2005).

Thomas and French (1985: 266 & 276), in a meta-analysis reviewing all available research on sex differences in throwing, found that the gap stood at 1.5 standard deviations at three years of age, and increased over time, widening to between three and five standard deviations by puberty. By contrast, the much discussed ‘math gap’ between boys and girls, in Hyde’s meta-analysis of 48 studies, was a +0.08 on problem solving and +0.16 on national math tests (Hyde 2005; 2007: 260). In other words, if you’re impressed by the gap in math scores (I’m not), you should be awestruck at the gap in throwing ability.

I just finished writing the draft of a potential book chapter on throwing ability for a volume Prof. Robert Sands is putting together on biocultural approaches to sports. The chapter steps off from my observations that most of my colleagues in Brazil, men included, ‘threw like girls’ even though they were incredibly talented athletes, some of the most astounding capoeira practitioners I have ever seen. The book chapter is linked to some other work I’ve been doing, so I’ve got notes enough for several chapters – I thought I might put some up on because they were especially related to some of the things we focus on here.

This is probably going to wind up being at least two or three posts, so in this one, I’m only going to discuss the neurological issues surrounding throwing and the likely mechanical or technical issues that make (some) women (and Brazilian men and others) ‘throw like girls.’ At least one more post is going to deal with physiological plasticity beyond the nervous system, such as the way throwing remodels the shoulder, to explore anatomical plasticity more broadly, but you’re going to have to come back later for that one…

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Charles Whitehead: Social Mirrors

In the depths of the Bad Semester (how I now refer to the last four months), Dr. Charles Whitehead contacted me to share notes on neuroanthropology. I’m trying to catch up with the immense backlog of material I need to work through, but I thought I would post a short note and a link to his website, Social Mirrors. It’s a pretty interesting spread of thinking, and Dr. Whitehead has provided numerous links to his papers and other material.

Dr. Charles Whitehead
Dr. Charles Whitehead

I especially like his piece with Prof. Robert Turner, downloadable here, on the effects of collective representations on the brain. In particular, the Turner and Whitehead article argues that the idea that certain areas of the brain are networked into a ‘social brain’ — implying that the rest of the brain is ‘not social’ — is hard to support. I’ll admit that I don’t necessarily use the same language or conceive of how the brain works in the ways described by Turner and Whitehead, but it is well worth the read to check it out, if for no other reason that it provides a corrective to some emerging ways of theorizing brain enculturation.

Turner and Whitehead take the multiple senses of the word, ‘representation,’ especially the conflicting use by anthropologists and social scientists, on the one hand, and brain sciences, as a point of departure. Normally, I just find the overlap annoying and have argued that it is one reason that anthropologists don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to neurosciences (for example, in Beyond Bourdieu’s ‘body’ — giving too much credit?). But Turner and Whitehead have something more constructive to say about the unstable term (from their conclusion):

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Balance between cultures: equilibrium training

Way back in January, I posted ‘Equilibrium, modularity, and training the brain-body.‘ At the American Anthropology Association annual meeting, I presented my current version of this research, significantly updating it with ethnographic material from Brazil, a comparative discussion of different techniques for training balance, and a series of graphics that I hope help to make my points. The title of that paper was ‘Balancing Between Cultures: A Comparative Neuroanthropology of Equilibrium in Sports and Dance.’

I’ve decided to post a version of this paper here, with the caveat that it’s still a work-in-progress. I’d be delighted to read any feedback people are willing to offer.


Boca d' Rio does a bananeira
Boca d' Rio does a bananeira
As a cultural anthropologist interested in the effects of physical training and perceptual learning, I see ‘neuroanthropology’ as a continuation of the cognitive anthropology advocated by Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn (1997).

The new label, however, reflects engagement with a new generation of brain research, what Andy Clark (1997) refers to as ‘third wave’ cognitive science, or work on embodied cognition.1 Much of the ‘third wave’ does not focus strictly on what we normally refer to as ‘cognition,’ that is, consciousness, memory, or symbolic reasoning. Rather embodied cognition often highlights other brain activities, such as motor, perceptual and regulatory functions, and the influence of embodiment on thought itself; this is the reason I’m thrilled to have endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky as part of this panel, as his work is part of the expanded engagement of neuroanthropology with organic embodiment.2.

My own entry into neuroanthropology results from three influences: a phenomenological interest in cultural variation in human perception, anthropological study of embodiment, and apprenticeship-based ethnographic methods. This method posed an odd question during my field research on the Afro-Brazilian martial art and dance, capoeira. Simply put, as a devoted apprentice-observer, I failed to maintain hermeneutical agnosticism and started to ask, ‘Is what my teachers and peers report — and I too seem to be experiencing — plausible?’

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Habits to Help

Val Curtis
Val Curtis

Warning: Habits May Be Good For You highlights the anthropologist Val Curtis’ work to synthesize anthropology, public health, and consumer behavior. She has a simple problem, how to teach children in sub-Saharan Africa to habitually wash their hands, thus lowering significantly the risk of many diseases. As Charles Duhigg writes, Curtis turned to consumer-goods companies for insight into her work.

She knew that over the past decade, many companies had perfected the art of creating automatic behaviors — habits — among consumers. These habits have helped companies earn billions of dollars when customers eat snacks, apply lotions and wipe counters almost without thinking, often in response to a carefully designed set of daily cues.

“There are fundamental public health problems, like hand washing with soap, that remain killers only because we can’t figure out how to change people’s habits,” Dr. Curtis said. “We wanted to learn from private industry how to create new behaviors that happen automatically.”

The companies that Dr. Curtis turned to — Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever — had invested hundreds of millions of dollars finding the subtle cues in consumers’ lives that corporations could use to introduce new routines.

If you look hard enough, you’ll find that many of the products we use every day — chewing gums, skin moisturizers, disinfecting wipes, air fresheners, water purifiers, health snacks, antiperspirants, colognes, teeth whiteners, fabric softeners, vitamins — are results of manufactured habits. A century ago, few people regularly brushed their teeth multiple times a day. Today, because of canny advertising and public health campaigns, many Americans habitually give their pearly whites a cavity-preventing scrub twice a day, often with Colgate, Crest or one of the other brands advertising that no morning is complete without a minty-fresh mouth…

“Our products succeed when they become part of daily or weekly patterns,” said Carol Berning, a consumer psychologist who recently retired from Procter & Gamble, the company that sold $76 billion of Tide, Crest and other products last year. “Creating positive habits is a huge part of improving our consumers’ lives, and it’s essential to making new products commercially viable.”


Habitual behavior is one topic that concerns brain science, psychology, economics and anthropology, each with disciplinary specific ways of trying to explain these everyday patterns. However, most of those explanations have two flaws: some variety of rationality as the way to understand habits, and some causal force (e.g., genetics, reward, subjective utility, culture) as forming the pattern. But things are not quite so simple, as “Habits May Be Good For You” shows:

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Cabbies’ brains

The BBC has a nice piece covering the continuing research of Prof. Eleanor Maguire (Wellcome Institute of Neurology, University College London) on the distinctive development of the hippocampus in the brains of London taxi drivers: Taxi drivers’ brains ‘grow’ on the job. Prof. Maguire’s research in this area is pretty extensive (see publication list). She’s found a great naturally occurring experiment in the brains of cabbies who have to navigate London’s notoriously byzantine downtown streets.

As the BBC report describes, driving a cab in London is difficult and demands a well-developed knowledge of urban geography:

In order to drive a traditional black cab in London drivers have to gain “the knowledge” – an intimate acquaintance with the myriad of streets in a six-mile radius of Charing Cross.

It can take around three years of hard training, and three-quarters of those who embark on the course drop out, according to Malcolm Linskey, manager of London taxi school Knowledge Point. “There are 400 prescribed runs which you can be examined on but in reality, you can be asked to join any two points,” he told BBC News Online.

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Monkeys and robots teaming up — worried?

As Daniel discussed in January in Monkey Makes Robot Walk!, a number of researchers are working on brain-machine interfaces by attaching prostheses to monkeys. Science Daily carries a new story, Mind Over Matter: Monkey Feeds Itself Using Its Brain, about a University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine experiment in which a monkey successfully used a human-like prosthetic limb to feed itself. As the Science Daily story reports:

Using this technology, monkeys in the Schwartz lab are able to move a robotic arm to feed themselves marshmallows and chunks of fruit while their own arms are restrained. Computer software interprets signals picked up by probes the width of a human hair. The probes are inserted into neuronal pathways in the monkey’s motor cortex, a brain region where voluntary movement originates as electrical impulses. The neurons’ collective activity is then evaluated using software programmed with a mathematic algorithm and then sent to the arm, which carries out the actions the monkey intended to perform with its own limb. Movements are fluid and natural, and evidence shows that the monkeys come to regard the robotic device as part of their own bodies.

According to the team, this is the ‘first’ example of the ‘use of cortical signals to control a multi-jointed prosthetic device for direct real-time interaction with the physical environment (’embodiment’)’ (from the abstract to the Nature article) (I’m always dubious about such ‘firsts,’ especially as this team has been announcing work on this project since at least 2004; but the research is still fascinating even if not a ‘first’).

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